The boom of wind and solar adoption has led to one big question: how can we use renewable energy when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining? Right now, the vast majority of wind and solar projects are only adding energy to wind and sun are present. Plus, wind and solar energy output is variable: solar panels are collecting more sunshine in the middle of the day than right after sunrise, for instance. These peaks in production do not necessarily coincide with peak electricity demand.

Some argue that the ebb and flow of renewables make it difficult for a wholesale shift to clean energy we need in order to significantly limit carbon emissions and tackle climate change. However, energy storage technology is on the rise, and it’s the game-changer we need to make a broad-scale transition to clean energy. By allowing us to collect power from the wind and sun when it’s available and distribute it when it’s needed, energy storage will allow us to cut ties with fossil fuels.

While there are various forms of energy storage, batteries have become the most popular in recent years. This is largely because prices are falling dramatically as battery technology develops, most notably so for lithium-ion batteries, whose cost has fallen by over 70% since 2012. One advantage of batteries is scalability; they can be paired with a large solar or wind farm or connected to solar panels on your roof.

Energy storage can provide multiple benefits, both to utilities and energy customers. Because storage can be used to meet demand during peak times, it can reduce the investments that utilities need to make into generation or transmission upgrades. For example, storage technology could reduce investment in peaker plants—power plants which run a fraction of the time to meet high demand periods. Storage as an alternative is becoming increasingly economical: as the price of storage drops, utilities are beginning to find it more cost-effective to replace existing fossil fuel plants with projects that couple renewable energy with storage.

By allowing us to collect power from the wind and sun when it’s available and distribute it when it’s needed, energy storage will allow us to cut ties with fossil fuels.

Households and businesses can also benefit from battery storage. To reduce utility bills, customers could charge batteries with energy from the grid when prices are low and use battery power when prices are high. Since energy prices are dependent on demand, this also benefits the grid by reducing withdraws during periods of high demand.

For rooftop solar owners, energy storage can allow for energy self-sufficiency. Individuals, institutions and businesses can control how they use the energy they produce. Energy storage can also serve as backup power and boost resiliency to power outages.

Despite its benefits, storage needs a favorable policy and regulatory environment to succeed, an environment which we have not yet seen here in Wisconsin. Since storage technologies like batteries only recently became economical, some of the existing policies are not well adapted to support their full participation in the market.

Many states recognize the importance of energy storage in their renewable energy and grid resiliency goals and are in the process of passing legislation and revising their laws to encourage energy storage. Most recently, Minnesota lawmakers passed a bill requiring utilities to include storage in their long-term planning. Requiring utilities to consider energy storage, which is becoming an increasingly economical option, could result in a wave of battery storage investment over traditional solutions such as to natural gas peaker plants. Wisconsin, by contrast, has not been one of these early adapters and has yet to account for storage in its energy policy.

At Clean Wisconsin, we see energy storage as an important component of a successful and swift transition to 100 percent carbon-free energy. A jumping off point for state reform is a thorough analysis of the benefits, costs and ideal scope of storage and the barriers it faces. This type of analysis could serve Wisconsin by offering insight into how storage could facilitate our clean energy goals.

Transforming our energy sector may be the challenge of the century, and we need to ensure that all our tools are on the table.

Learn more about our work on clean energy in Wisconsin.